You may not have heard of ‘underground coal gasification’, or UCG. But according to Algy Cluff, director of the company Cluff Natural Resources, the technique has potential as a ‘sustainable and low cost energy source’ for Britain, which could ‘rejuvenate the North Sea’ and ‘do much to solve our energy needs and those of continental Europe for decades to come’.
If you can suspend your disbelief that massive fossil fuel exploitation can somehow occur without climate change, it all sounds very promising. Except – as with other hyped new energy technologies such as shale gas – the reality is dramatically removed from the greenwash. And as with shale, 2013 is set to be the year that UCG drilling in Britain proliferates.
Cluff Natural Resources hold UCG licences for the Loughor Estuary, in Carmarthenshire, and the Dee Esturary between Wales and Liverpool. They’re also bidding on a further four. Private company Five-Quarter, who hold licences in the North Sea off the Northumberland coast, are also chomping at the bit.
The unique selling point of UCG is it’s tapping of previously un-minable coal reserves of which Britain has an ample supply, running to billions of tonnes. The process involves deep drilling into coal seams and using horizontal drilling techniques similar to those involved in fracking. Either air or pure oxygen is pumped down one well, and the coal is set on fire underground. The resulting gases are piped to the surface, where a mix of hydrogen, methane and carbon monoxide known as ‘syngas’, can be separated for burning.
If intentionally starting fires deep underground sounds dangerous, that’s because it is. Environmentally, there is a serious risk from UCG of groundwater contamination by the toxic and carcinogenic coal tars left in the coal cavity through well subsistence. Were the technique used at the kind of scale that companies are predicting in their investors’ spiel, it will involve an infrastructure of power plants connected to multiple gasifiers that would significantly scar and industrialise the natural landscape.
The process also produces massive carbon emissions: UCG is so polluting in terms of carbon dioxide it’s been stated that, ‘If an additional 4 trillion tonnes were extracted without the use of carbon capture or other mitigation technologies atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels could quadruple – resulting in a global mean temperature increase of between 5 and 10 degrees Celsius.’ Currently, CCS is more of an idea than a viable technology, despite industry claims that UCG and CCS are a feasible and desirable coupling.
Industry propaganda frequently states that UCG technology is tried and tested. While it’s true that UCG has been tested in the past – in the US, China and by the Soviet Union – on a scale significantly smaller than is proposed in the Britain, these attempts have been plagued by disaster. Recent experiments in Australia resulted in two out of three plants being shut down in 2010. One, in Queensland, exploded after just five days. Carcinogens benzene and toluene were then found in ground water and the fat of grazing animals. Previous tests in the US and Europe have also been plagued by explosions and groundwater contamination.
Not only are there plans for British UCG to be rolled out on a much larger industrial scale than these experiments, but it’s also disregarding the advice gleaned from them: that UCG should not be done in inhabited areas, and sited only where no groundwater can be contaminated. In the rush to ‘pioneer’ UCG, licences in Britain have been sold next to urban centres. A Warwickshire licence that Cluff are eager to get their hands on is, unprecedentedly, onshore and in-land.
As with fracking, it appears the seduction of plundering the last of our fossil fuel reserves has blinded both industry and government to the damage such extreme methods will cause.